Friday, July 17, 2009

Clash of the vanishing titans

Everywhere I look all I see is news of newspapers folding and how the Internet has infringed on the newspapers' turf. I remember the same thing a few decades back (yes, I am that old) when the upstart telephone companies were complaining they couldn't make any headway because AT&T had a monopoly. The government's answer was to institute the anti-trust laws and down came Ma Bell. Of course, the small companies made out like the bandits they were because they got to use the equipment and lines that Ma Bell had so thoughtfully installed over nearly 100 years of being in business and Ma Bell gave birth to a lot of Baby Bells.

Now we have the reverse with the upstart Internet pushing the entrenched newspapers out of their own business by providing fast and often erroneous access to news that the newspapers cannot even come close to beating. The newspapers are hemorrhaging money and every day another paper goes into bankruptcy and gives up the ghost as advertisers flee the sinking ship for shiny, flashy and inexpensive ads on the Internet, and they're interactive, too. What could be better? Save money and get world wide access. It's a dream come true -- for the advertisers who are getting world wide bang for their buck -- and a nightmare for newspapers . . . and people. There is nowhere you can get away from the all pervasive carny barking that follows you into your home and won't let go.

Advertisers invade email and news stories, literally popping up everywhere. Even with pop-up blocking programs, some of them still get through when you click on a link or do a search. Looks like the world that Philip K. Dick envisioned is here and it's like kudzu or a super bug high on antibiotics; it will get you where you live. At least with newspapers, you could turn the page and the advertisement wouldn't follow you.

So what's the answer to the slow death of the newspaper industry as they sink under their own weight like dinosaurs into the tar pits?

Ooh! where there's dinosaurs and tar pits there must be oil. All right, a topic for another day.

When you continue to do something in the same way expecting a different result it's called insanity, and the newspapers have not changed with the times. Some newspapers have gone viral, and that's in their best interests, but in order to justify the killing of more forests to print a newspaper on actual paper, newspapers need to do something different, offer what the Mayfly life span of the Internet cannot offer -- depth.

There is no way that newspapers can continue to provide up to the minute news and they were on shaky ground as soon as television took over with late breaking news and break-in broadcasts with on-the-scene reporting. Why wait for the morning or evening news when it's already in your home and you don't have to move from the easy chair or couch to watch it while phoning all your friends to tell them to turn on their TV sets and get a load of this?

What newspapers can provide is factual reporting with actual fact checking, something not possible in the fast, fast cyberspeed world of the Internet, and the story behind the news. Paul Harvey's been doing it forever and people still listen to his shows -- because they want to hear the rest of the story. Paul Harvey doesn't rely on sound bytes and he's always done very well. People want to know what's behind the headlines, what's inside the story, the nuance and history and facts that don't make it into sound bytes or speed written stories that go viral like a story passed from person to person while playing telephone. Not the viral rumor mill that often passes for news on the Internet, but real news, the real nitty gritting, down-to-earth, sitting like a fly on the wall news. If you can't match the speed, beat them with the details.

Ma Bell changed her game and her face under pressure and the newspapers have been feeling the pressure for a long time. Push has come to shove and, if newspapers aren't careful, their golden parachutes will collapse while they're still too high to survive the fall.

A democracy, that fast disappearing freedom that is eroding before our very eyes, relies on solid and informative news services. As go the newspapers and honest reporting, so goes democracy. Can we really afford to lose either of them?

That is all. Disperse.

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